About Critical Social Research (1990)



© Lee Harvey 1990, 2011, 2014, 2018, 2019

Page updated 31 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., [1990] 2011, Critical Social Research, available at, last updated 31 January, 2019, originally published in London by Unwin Hyman, all rights revert to author.


A novel of twists and surpises


Critical Social Research

1. Basics

1.6 Elements of critical social research
1.6.1 Introduction
1.6.2 Abstraction
1.6.3 Totality
1.6.4 Essence
1.6.5 Praxis
1.6.6 Ideology
1.6.7 Structure
1.6.8 History
1.6.9.Deonstruction and reconstruction
1.6.10 Conclusion

1.6.1 Introduction
Critical social research is extremely varied but critical methodology is based on seven building blocks. These blocks should not be considered as discrete units that can simply be placed next to one another. They are elements that are drawn together in various ways in the process of deconstruction and reconstruction. These elements of critical social research are abstraction, totality, essence, praxis, ideology, history and structure.

Critical social research denies that its object of study is ‘objective’ social appearances. It regards the positivistic scientific method as unsatisfactory because it deals only with surface appearances. Instead, critical social research methodology cuts through surface appearance. It does so by locating social phenomena in their specific historical context. Historically-specific phenomena cannot be regarded as independent, on the contrary they are related to other phenomena within a prevailing social structure. Critical social research analyses this structure. Social structures are maintained through the exercise of political and economic power. Such power (grounded in repressive mechanisms) is legitimated through ideology. Critical social research thus addresses and analyses both the ostensive social structure and its ideological manifestations and processes.

In examining the context of social phenomena, critical social research directs attention at the fundamental nature of phenomena. Rather than take the abstract phenomena for granted, it takes apart (deconstructs) the abstraction to reveal the inner relations and thus reconstructs the abstract concept taking into account the social structural relations that inform it.

This process of deconstruction and reconstruction involves a totalistic approach. A totalistic approach denies the relevance of looking at one element of a complex social process in isolation and argues that the interrelationship of elements have to be examined as well as and how they relate to the social structure as a whole. So critical social research is concerned with the broad social and historical context in which phenomena are interrelated. It is concerned with revealing underlying social relations and showing how structural and ideological forms bear on them. Critical social research, then, is interested in substantive issues. It wants to show what is really going on at a societal level. Not only does it want to show what is happening, it is also concerned with doing something about it. Critical social research includes an overt political struggle against oppressive social structures.

The examination of particular critical empirical studies that forms the bulk of this book is in order to illustrate how critical research has been undertaken in practice and how some or all of these elements have been combined in the dialectical deconstructive-reconstructive process. Before moving on to see how these elements have been developed in practice, a few working definitions of the building blocks of critical social research are perhaps in order.[13] 


1.6.2 Abstraction
Abstraction is usually construed as the distillation of sensory perception of the world of objects into conceptual categories. That is, we start from the (literally) objective world and select out the recurrent or apparently core or defining features until an abstract concept is formulated (at least in our minds if not in a directly communicable form). Thus, for example, ‘employability’ is construed as the set of ‘skills’ that enable a person to get a job. This process of distillation of some features from a set of observed objects is at the basis of most systems of classification.

This process may be acceptable to phenomenalist approaches to knowledge, which involve an implicit assumption that science begins with factual observations and abstracts from them, but it is not adequate for critical social research. Indeed, the start point for critical social research is to reverse this normal process of abstractive thought.

Critical social research admits that facts do not exist independently of their theoretical context. If facts are not self-evident then concepts cannot be abstracted from them. Critical social research thus works by moving from the abstract to the concrete. It starts with the abstract generalisation and investigates them.

At one level this requires a thorough understanding of the way the concept or abstraction is usually used. Of course, any sound non-critical research will also undertake this kind of review. Indeed, it is embedded in the sociological tradition. Critical social research, however, goes further than a comprehensive review of accepted usages to investigate the taken-for-granted underpinnings of the concept. In this respect it differs from most non-critical research. Having understood how a concept is used, critical social research attempts to reveal underlying structures that specify the nature of the abstract concepts, but which have themselves been assimilated uncritically into the prevailing conceptualisation.

Delphy’s analysis of the abstract concept of housework (section 1.2 above) provides an example. The abstract concept is made concrete not just as a set of tasks but also reveals underlying relations of production, which are obscured by the non-critical notion of housework. Delphy’s analysis illustrates how critical social research aims to critically develop a reconstructed abstraction that represents the inner structures without which historically specific phenomenal form, or outward appearance, has no meaning. The general concept of housework is grasped in relation to the total structure of patriarchal relations in which it exists. Thereafter, the historically specific, in Delphy’s case French smallholders, may be analysed in relation to the generalised form by examining the evolution and structuring of the concrete practical circumstances and processes by which some of the housewives’ work is excluded from productive labour.

Critical methodology’s use of abstractions, therefore, differs from the positivist use because, rather than simply providing the basis for ordering appearances and ultimately reifying them, they are used to get beneath the surface of appearances. Instead of simply adopting an empirical approach and logging housework tasks, a critical approach relates housework to the wider sphere of production and sees it as a work relationship. The penetration of this mode of productive relations begins to get beneath the surface of appearances. The superficial taken-for-granted ‘task view’ of housework is replaced by a dynamic conception that provides the basis for a holistic critique of social processes.


1.6.3 Totality
Totality refers to the view that social phenomena are interrelated and form a total whole. This implies more than that a social phenomenon should be situated in a wider social context, it requires that social phenomena should not be analysed in isolation. They should not be regarded as encapsulated by a narrowly defined realm that can be investigated in a way that suggests they are self-contained elements or organisms. A totalistic perspective implies that the components are interrelated into a coherent structure, that they only have meaning in relation to the structure, and in turn the structure relies on the component parts.[14] 

In adopting a totalistic approach, critical social research attempts to relate empirical detail to a structural and historical whole. Crucial to a critical methodological approach to history and structure are three things. First, an appreciation that social relations are historically specific. Second, an appreciation of the structural relations operating within that historical moment. Third, an appreciation of the reciprocal nature of the determinancy of historically specific structure and specific phenomenal forms. So, returning to Delphy’s example of housework, the French mid-twentieth-century housewife is seen as operating within a family unit whose internal exploitative relations are excluded from national accounting. The unremunerated (as opposed to unpaid) labour of the housewife both maintains the social and labour relationship of the family unit and is maintained by it. 


1.6.4 Essence
Essence refers to the fundamental element of an analytic process. Most positivists regard any concern with essences as bordering on the metaphysical. Their only overt acknowledgement is in relation to the reduction of social or physical processes to their essential causal links. Phenomenologists, investigating the social world, view essences in a rather different way. They seek the essential nature of social phenomena or social relations. That is, some kind of core of being or engagement with a stream of consciousness, or, less transcendentally, the set of constructs that informs interactive processes. For critical social researchers, essence is a fundamental concept that can be used as the key to unlocking the deconstructive process. The key Marx used in his analysis of capitalism is (as we will see in more detail in section 2.3) the commodity form. For Delphy, the essential nature of housework was not the set of tasks, nor its lack of payment but its location within the exploitative relations of the family unit. Housework is essentially a work relationship. It is unremunerated work done by one member of a family unit for another.


1.6.5 Praxis
Praxis means practical reflective activity. It is what humans do a lot of the time. Praxis does not include ‘instinctive’ or ‘mindless’ activity like sleeping, breathing, walking, or undertaking repetitive work tasks. Praxis is what changes the world. For the critical social researcher knowledge is not just about finding out about the world but it is about changing it. It is important, therefore, that critical social research engages praxis. However, the critical social researcher is not interested in the specific actions or reasons for action of an individual. Individual actions are simply indicative of social groups operating within an oppressive social structure and/or historical juncture. What critical social research must take account of, in some way, is that changes in social formations are the result of praxis. So the subjects of any enquiry are analysed as to their potential for developing group action. Further, however, critical social researchers engage oppressive social structures and their own enquiries thus embody praxiological concerns.

Throughout, it has been suggested that critical social research is as much about a questioning the nature of knowledge as it is about the critique of the knowledge we have. Knowledge changes not simply as a result of reflection but as a result of activity too. Knowledge changes as a result of praxis. Similarly what we know informs praxis. Knowledge is dynamic, not because we uncover more grains of sand for the bucket but because of a process of fundamental reconceptualisation which is only possible as a result of direct engagement with the processes and structures that generate knowledge. Knowledge does not reside in a cupboard or on a bookshelf to be taken out, dusted down, and looked at. Knowledge exists in our everyday lives. We live our knowledge, it may inform what we do but we also constantly transform it through what we do. For critical social research this means that an analysis of oppressive social structures is in itself a political act. Knowing cannot be shelved, it becomes part of our life, and informs our actions that engage these structures. The activity of engagement is at the root of further development of knowledge. Critical social research is thus intrinsically praxiological. Thus, for example, Delphy argues that the analysis of housework cannot begin until the notion of household unit is overturned.


1.6.6 Ideology
‘Ideology’ has not been easily translated into English and has tended to be little or poorly analysed in much conventional social research. The difficulty in ‘objectivising’ ideology has led some social scientists to regard it as beyond scientific analysis and thus not important, or to replace it with terms like ‘norm’, ‘values’ and ‘central value system’. The use of alternative terms has been a notable feature of American social science (Hall, 1978). These alternative concepts, while attempting to operationalise the idea of social legitimations, dispense with the critical element and are of little use in developing a critical analysis that goes beneath surface appearance.

Ideology, as a concept, has a long history but it developed its current usage as an analytic and critical tool in the work of Marx and has been an important feature of Marxism. Marx suggested that ideology is present from the moment that social relations take on a hierarchical form. There are, arguably, two approaches to a critical analysis of ideology, the positive and the negative view of ideology (Larrain, 1979, 1982).

Ideology in its positive sense tends to relate ideology closely to Weltanschauung (world view), notably class-based world views (as in Lukacs’ (1971) thesis of working-class consciousness). The world view of the dominant class (the bourgeoisie in capitalism) prevails over other views and distorts perception through various mechanisms embodied in education, religion, the media and so on, in order to conceal the real nature of the relations of production underlying class differences. This dominant world view is said to be hegemonic. Ideology therefore serves to hide the interests of dominated groups from themselves. This view, thus, tends to equate ideology with false consciousness. The positive view of ideology renders enormous power to ideology, or to the manufacturers and dissipators of ideology. The positive view of ideology, while seeing ideology as distorting, tends to ignore the grounding of ideology in social relations. Ideology thus emerges as a seemingly self-evident abstraction. This approach, while supposedly materialist, inserts ideology as an idealist screen between social milieu and knowledge production.

The negative meaning of ideology is fundamentally opposed to a reduction of ideology to false consciousness. The negative view argues that ideas cannot be detached from the material conditions of their production thus it is opposed to a Weltanschauung (positive) view of ideology. The implication is that ideology can only be affected by changes in the material base. The negative view sees ideology as not simply a procedure by which reality is distorted, but one in which ideology is dialectically related to the nature of social relations and serves not to distort or hide that relationship but to reify class differences as intrinsic and natural. This view sees ideology as inhering in thought. Ideology becomes transparent because it appears natural. Ideology is constantly reaffirmed through everyday practice. Thus, the negative view argues that ideology can only be destroyed through praxis that changes the material basis of the production of ideas. While the negative view implies that ideas change only when material conditions change, it is important to realise that the operation of ideology, as process, is also dialectical. Ideology, inhering in social relationships is both informed by, and informs, the nature of these relationships. A critique of ideology is therefore possible if one addresses the interrelationship between ideology and practice, thereby going beyond surface appearances.

Ideology is it an important concept for critical social research then because ideology serves to obscure the ‘true material reality’ and must be engaged. ‘True material reality’ here refers not to self-evident surface appearances but to relations (usually of production) that are obscured by social totalities. The notion of ideology as obscuring relations of production implies that it is a kind of screen that can be removed or transcended. The possibility of transcending ideology depends upon what is taken as ideology.

The positive view frames ideology as false consciousness or world view that can be engaged and transcended. The negative view sees ideology as all pervasive and grounded in the material relations of production. Ideology cannot be disengaged from the material infrastructure. This makes it difficult to reveal the nature of ideology because it means making apparent something that has been transparent and somehow natural. The approach in this case is to identify the essence of social relations (in detail) and separate this essence from structural forms through a process of dialectical deconstruction and reconstruction.

Ideology, of course, does not simply relate to class exploitation; gender, race and other forms of oppression have been legitimated in ideological terms. Patriarchal and racist ideologies can be seen as part of or alternatives to class-based hegemony. For Delphy, the discussion of housework as a set of tasks reflects a patriarchal ideology that obscures the real relations of production within the family unit  


1.6.7 Structure
Structure is a term used in two ways in social research. Its principal meaning and the one applicable to critical social research is of structure viewed holistically as a complex set of interrelated elements that are interdependent and that can only be adequately conceived in relation to the complete structure. This is the sense in which structuralism uses the term structure. It also reflects, in general, Marxist views of the structural nature of social systems. What it involves is the idea of wholeness, transformation and self-regulation (Piaget, 1971). Wholeness means an internal coherence, not a simple composite or aggregate of independent elements but parts that are intrinsically linked together as part of a structure. Transformation means that the structure is not static, the intrinsic sets of interrelationships of the elements of the structure make it not only structured but structuring. The structure is capable of transformative procedures. Self-regulation means that the structure makes no appeals beyond itself in order to validate its transformational procedures. Language, for example, is a relational whole with grammatical rules; can transform fundamental sentences into a wide variety of forms whilst retaining them within its structure; and transforms sentences with no reference to an outside reality.

An alternative use of the term structure is to see it as something that can be reduced to its elements. The complexity of a structure is decomposed into a network of linked parts with a view to exposing the elements and simplifying the whole. It is assumed that the elements make sense in their own right. This is more aptly described as a system. It is essentially the approach adopted by structural functionalists. Possibly the easiest way to distinguish structure from system is to see a system as a congealed patterns of interaction, and structure as underlying models of the world that structuralists seek to identify. The reductionist system view tends not to address the dialectical interrelationship of the parts and the whole that is crucial to critical social research.

For Delphy, to break housework down into a system of tasks ignores the relationship between the elements and the whole, which is one of a transforming social relation. The exploitative nature of the tasks done as ‘housework’ can only be seen when the individual domestic labour is related to the family unit and the domestic unit is related to the broader economic unit. To see housework as tasks denies this structural relationship.  


1.6.8 History
History refers to both the reconstructed account of past events and the process by which this reconstruction is made; that is, the process of doing history. History writing then involves both a view about the nature of history and the assembling of historical materials. There are a number of ways of ‘doing’ history and a number of different schemes for categorising history. Rather than assess all these differing views, the nature of the historical perspective embodied in critical social research will be outlined.

Critical social research involves two essential elements, the grounding of a generalised theory in material history and the exposure of the essential nature of structural relations that manifest themselves historically. Critical social research does not accept that history is essentially ‘factual’. It denies that history exists and is just lying around waiting to be unearthed by the historian. Like all other aspects of social research history is an interpretive process, the product of the activity of the historian. Reconstructing history is not just a matter of digging through archives or libraries to locate the facts and events of history. Reconstructing history is the result of an active interpretation of the available archaeological, documentary or oral evidence. Approaches that adopt a view of history as an interpretive process rather than the gathering of already existing facts are usually referred to as historicist approaches.

The first tenet of historicism is that history is an interpretive process. A second tenet of historicism is its incorporation of ‘objectivity’ in one form or another. Historicists either explicitly or implicitly propose an account that reconstructs the meanings of events or, in analysing a text, reconstructs the meanings of the author. Such meanings are, however, informed by current conceptualisations. The past is thus reconstructed in one way or another on the basis of the present. Naive historicism involves an attempt to objectively reconstruct or re-experience the past. While accepting that history is an interpretive process, it presumes that historical events, or the meanings of historical documents can be reconstructed irrespective of the passage of time. In effect, the ‘presentist’ meaning applied to past occurrences and the questionable nature of the objective reconstruction is apparently naively ignored.

The more frequent Weltanschauung historicism attempts to generate an objective account through a specification of ‘interests’ within a ‘world view’ (Weltanschauung). This specification of interests takes two forms. First, an objectificationist form that sees history as progressing towards some meaningful goal. Such a view is somewhat analogous to a kind of secular version of the eschatological notion of evolution to salvation (Radnitzky, 1973). Historicism in this form is rather doctrinaire, conceiving of a ‘plan’ that history will reveal. Its extreme form is manifest in utopian historicism in which claims are made that there are laws that govern the inevitable succession of historical stages (for example, in the work of Plekhanov (1940a, 1940b, 1947).

The second specification of interests is rather more a declaration of interests. In this approach, the historian declares a perspective that informs the reconstruction of past events. There is no necessary view of the progress of history towards a particular outcome but there is a view that particular interests have been manifested through an historical epoch and that these can be reconstructed through an analysis of documents and events.

Historicism has been adapted as an approach for critical social research in its radical formulations. Radical historicism adopts the basic historicist tenets of history as a presentist, objectivist, interpretative process but in one way or another attempts to dig beneath the surface of historical manifestations. This it does through a critical analysis of the prevailing frameworks in which the history is located. There are two main radical historicist tendencies.

Structural historicism is the process of reconstructing a honed down history, devoid of confusing instances, as a result of a new perspective gained from a critique of prevailing social structures. This approach analyses the prevailing structure and its ideology, deconstructs it, and then reconstructs a logical history guided by the structural analysis. The point of reference for the historicist reconstruction is not the prevailing social system or contemporary perspective but the radical, dialectically reconstructed, social structure. This approach is illustrated in the review of Marx’s analysis of capitalism (section 2.3).

Critical historicism reconstructs history through the adoption of a critical Weltanschauung (world view). The point of view informs the historical reconstructive process. However, it involves more than just a different point of view upon which to base an historical account. This approach examines the historical genesis of a social system and show how oppressive structures have emerged. It addresses how historical events relate to prevailing social practices and examines the extent to which prevailing structures are sustained through them. This approach is fairly common amongst feminist historians and is explored below in the work of Mumtaz and Shaheed (1987) and can also be seen in Mills’ (1956) study of the power structure in the United States in the 1950s.

It is worth noting here that an historicist perspective that declares a ‘non-dominant’ perspective informing the historical reconstruction is not in itself indicative of a piece of critical social research. While this book is not intended to provide criteria for judging whether or not work qualifies as critical social research, it is intended as a guide to the many ways of doing such research. Without arbitrarily delimiting the scope of critical social research it seems not inconsistent to suggest that the process of critical social research requires more than an alternative perspective. Providing a broader context within which to locate the history of an organisation is indicative of, but not sufficient for, a critical study. Providing a general framework merely situates the specific history, it is only critical if it relates the specific to the wider social structures. In short, a totalistic perspective rather than an holistic framework is required.

Undertaking historical research is a process of detection. Non-interpretive views of history see this process of detection as akin to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Interpretive views of history accept that pieces do not fit together into a pre-arranged picture but that each piece has to be interpreted as part of an overall picture. Historicists, in the main, have a fairly good idea of what they think the current picture is and interpret historical events in relation to this picture. The interpretive process of history involves the historian as active detective, seeking out clues, following trails and leads and gradually getting a feel of what is going on. The critical social researcher applies detection not so much to solve a particular problem but to investigate the circumstances within which it occurred. To pursue the analogy, critical social research is not so much interested in who shot John Kennedy but in uncovering the conspiracy (or lack of it) that surrounds the event. Critical social research, of course, does not approach the past as though it were a conspiracy, nor however, does it see it simply as a series of events. The critical approach to history locates events in their social and political contexts, addresses the economic constraints and engages taken-for-granted ideological factors. It does this not just by reference to the events but also requires the researcher to be reflexive, taking into account their own historical situation and perspective.

So, like all aspects of critical social research, history is not just there waiting to be picked up and fitted into the critical historical account. History has to be researched and critically evaluated as well. Within critical social research the reconstruction of history takes place alongside the structural analysis, it both informs and is informed by it.  


1.6.9 Deconstruction and reconstruction
Deconstruction and reconstruction begins from the abstract concepts that are applied to, or used in relation to, an area of investigation. In practice, there may be a large list of concepts. It is not necessary to attempt a separate critical analysis of each. They are all interrelated and so the ‘key’ is to locate a central concept and critically analyse that. From that, the other concepts can be reconstructed.

Before addressing how the central concept is analysed it is important to note that the deconstructive-reconstructive process is not just abstract concept analysis tacked on to the usual idealised sequence of events in a research undertaking. Critical social research is not embodied in a series of discrete phases. It is not just abstract concept analysis followed by hypothesis generation, data collection, data analysis, and the generation of results, with the implications for theory added at the end. Critical social research develops the different elements in parallel, each aspect informs each of the other aspects.

So the abstract analysis, while the starting point, is integrally related to empirical enquiry, not something that stands apart from it. Conceptualisation, for the critical social researcher, is grounded in the material world. It is linked to practice. The deconstructive-reconstructive process, which is at the heart of dialectical analysis, involves a constant shuttling backwards and forwards between abstract concept and concrete data; between social totalities and particular phenomena; between current structures and historical development; between surface appearance and essence; between reflection and practice. This works as follows.

The researcher is concerned with a realm of enquiry, usually provoked by a particular question that demands attention, such as: ‘why do some youngsters not make the most of the opportunity offered by the education system? ‘Does the mass media manipulate the viewer? ‘Should women get paid for housework?’. These questions frame an area of enquiry. The first job is to explore its central concepts. The selection of a central concept is not simple, but, as we shall see in the substantive examples, neither is it impossible.

The whole point of critical research is that the researcher is prepared to abandon lines of thought that are not getting beneath surface appearances. It involves a constant questioning of the perspective and analysis that the researcher is building up. It is a process of gradually, and critically, coming to know through constant reconceptualisation. This means that the selection of a core concept for analysis is not a once and for all affair. The researcher does not need to select the ‘correct’ core concept first time, nor is the concept initially selected to be adhered to throughout the analysis. The ‘correct’ core concept only emerges in the course of the ongoing analysis. It is only ‘correct’ in the sense that it provides, at any point in the critical analysis, the best focus for deconstructing and reconstructing the phenomenon in its socio-historic context. The shuttling back and forth between the abstract and concrete, the unit and the structure, and so on, ensures that when the area of enquiry is taken apart, that this deconstructive process is not static. On the contrary, the deconstruction may prove to be unsatisfactory because the reconstructed system may not appear to work or to make sense. Thus the deconstruction needs to be further developed, which in turn will lead to a new basis for a reconstruction. And so the process goes on until the reconstructed analysis is coherent.

It is not the collection of data that is important, nor the garnering of information or facts, nor the interpretation of specific actions. Critical social research is about a fundamental understanding; about getting beyond the ‘facts’ and ‘hypotheses’ to a deep understanding of a substantive issue.

So, what one has to do is decide on an initial core concept? Bear in mind that the selection is one that derives from constantly mediated thought: the assessment of potential abstract conceptualisations and their relation to concrete social processes. Examine how the concept has been used and then ask what the underlying assumptions are that informs this usage and how it relates to the general area of enquiry. The relationship between the abstract core concept and the area of enquiry should be investigated both at the level of general abstractions and concrete empirical relations. Ask what appears to be going on at the abstract level and how this is manifest in concrete situations? To what extent is there some disjunction between the underlying presuppositions of the abstract concept and the nature of concrete reality? This involves widening the framework of the concrete investigation to consider related aspects.

Conventional social research encourages the funnelling of attention towards the examination of narrowly construed hypotheses. In ‘good’ conventional research this follows a wide acquaintance with available research and theoretical debate. Yet, it still focuses attention on specifics. Such an approach hinders the digging beneath the surface that is fundamental to critical social research.

Take housework. The conventional approach is to see it as a set of tasks. Delphy addressed it as unpaid domestic work. She showed that deconstructing housework in these terms did not work. Such an analysis failed to address the inconsistencies between work done in one’s own home and work done in another’s. Nor could it deal with the difference between work done at home that was regarded as economically accountable yet unpaid (butchering a pig) and work that was not (cooking the pig). A more useful deconstruction was to see housework as a relation of production. As work done for another family member. The exploitative nature of housework is thus reconstructable. The hidden nature of this exploitation in economic accounting that focuses on the family unit is revealed in this analysis by analysing the relationships within the family.

With each new conceptual level the area of enquiry is empirically and conceptually deconstructed. The process is ongoing, the new conceptualisations are used to reconstruct an alternative perspective. Thus, slowly, the ideology embedded in prevailing conceptualisations is undermined. The core abstraction is related to the social totality to see if it reveals further the nature of the workings of the totality. Empirical data is used to elaborate the relationship and suggest further deconstructive stages. The nature and manifestations of ideology are continually revealed. A new and radically different conceptualisation of the social processes and structural relations emerges. For critical methodologists then, science as the basis for the understanding of the social world, is not the construction of causal laws, but of a deeper understanding that goes beyond surface appearance and relates the parts to the whole. As such it differs too, from phenomenological approaches in relating its essentialist analysis to the social totality. This process is one of deconstruction and reconstruction.

Throughout the description of this process the concentration has been on the processes of analysis and critique that enable the deconstruction and reconstruction of the realm of enquiry. There has been no concern with data collection procedures. It is not the manner of data collection it is the approach to evidence that is important. However, it is not adequate to indulge in ‘armchair’ speculation. The world of concrete practical activity has to be engaged.

To sum up, the dialectical deconstructive-reconstructive process can be construed as a process of focusing on the structural totality or historical moment and critically reflecting on its essential nature. The totality is taken initially as an existent whole. This structure presents itself as natural, as the result of historical progress, that is, it is ideologically constituted. The critical analysis of the historically specific structure must therefore go beyond the surface appearances and lay bear the essential nature of the relationships that are embedded in the structure. This critique ostensively begins by fixing on the fundamental unit of the structural relationships and decomposing it. The fundamental unit must be broken down until its essential nature is revealed, the structure is then reconstituted in relation to this essentialised construct. The reconstructive process reveals the transparency of ideology. The whole is grounded in historically specific material reality.  


1.6.10 Conclusion
Critical social research involves a perspective that sees social structure as an oppressive mechanism of one kind or another. This oppression is legitimated via dominant ideology. Thus, critical social research involves a totalistic perspective. The structure is a particular historical manifestation and any analysis of it is located in the context of a wider historical analysis. Critical research digs beneath the surface of ostensive appearances through direct analysis of social phenomena. The concepts that frame and define an area of enquiry are themselves subject to critical analysis The taken-for-granted process of abstract conceptualisation is itself subject to investigation. Specific phenomena are analysed by assessing their historical manifestation and how they relate to wider social structures. The critical analytic process is one of deconstructing taken-for-granted concepts and theoretical relationships by asking how these taken-for-granted elements actually relate to wider oppressive structures and how these structures legitimate and conceal their oppressive mechanisms. An alternative non-dominant account is reconstructed. The critical rebuilding involves a process of conceptual shuttling back and forth between the particular phenomena under investigation and the wider structure and history to which it relates; between the taken-for-granted and the deconstructed concepts; and the theoretical deconstruction and the reconstructed social totality. The process leads to a continual revelation of the nature and operation of the oppressive social structure. Critical social research assumes that the world is changed by reflective practical activity and is thus not content to simply identify the nature of oppressive structures but to point to ways in which they can be combated through praxis.



[13] Some readers may prefer, at this point, to jump to the next part of the book to see some examples of critical social research and come back to this section later after getting a feel for critical research processes. Others who prefer to work from concepts to concrete examples should continue reading this section. return

[14] This is slightly different from the similar concept of holism. The latter is the view that an organization, institution, or even society, as a functioning whole has an effect on all the parts of which it is made up, and that therefore one should not study these parts in isolation. Totality is similar but emphasises the coherence, importance and reciprocal nature of the structure. return



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© Lee Harvey 1990 and 2011, last updated 9 May, 2011
Citation reference: Harvey, L., [1990] 2011, Critical Social Research, available at, last updated 9 May, 2011, originally published in London by Unwin Hyman, all rights revert to author.